SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Ty McKenzie waited on the hill of a blacktopped pathway that leads to a Little League baseball field in Georgia. Twenty-two other parents did the same.
Minutes earlier, Nolensville Little League had clinched its third consecutive trip to the Little League World Series with a victory against a team from Florida. McKenzie spent most of the game standing on the bleachers behind home plate corralling his young children and leading the crowd in cheers.
“Black!” he’d yell.
“Gold!” he heard back.
These moments were the reason McKenzie, a former NFL player and assistant coach who had stints with the L.A. Rams, Tennessee Titans and Detroit Lions, decided that parting ways seven months earlier by the Miami Dolphins was one of the best things to ever happen to him.
So he waited.
His son with the same name, the kid who made a game-saving play at third base earlier that night, finally walked through that open gate to the left of left field.
“He walked up to me and he melted in my arms with emotions,” McKenzie said. “He had so many emotions.
“The second-best part was after a while, he was like, ‘All right. It’s time to go again. We’re not done. It’s time to go.'”
Like son, like father.
Big Ty McKenzie never got to hug his dad like that, at least not after some of the biggest moments of his life. Rupert McKenzie owned a bakery in Tampa, was born in Jamaica, married a girl from Nottingham, England, had a son who played and coached in the NFL and died of complications from diabetes when McKenzie was 9 years old.
McKenzie decided not to pursue another job so he could be standing on a hill in Georgia on a muggy August night, his wife and children by his side. His son in his arms. So he wouldn’t be away at some NFL training camp.
“We’d spend countless hours in the cages and he’d be there with me,” the younger McKenzie said. “I never took it for granted. I love him. He’s always been there for me and that’s the reason I’m here.”
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‘Man of the house’
Ty McKenzie, the former NFL player and coach, stood behind a counter at a Hampton Inn & Suites in Bradenton, Florida. He’d just left Michigan State, unsure whether or when he’d have a chance to put on a football uniform again.
Five times a week, from 11 p.m. till 7 a.m.
He’d give half his check to his mother Ruth and use the other half to pay for a trainer so he could stay in shape.
“He’s training, like, stay-at-home moms and after-school dads,” McKenzie said. “I was like, ‘I have no idea if you know what you’re doing.’ That helped build me as a man.”
Ruth had been in a horrible car accident. Her daycare business, which she runs to this day, was at risk. Bills needed to be paid. Ty McKenzie had to be a man.
He played 11 games in 2004 as a true freshman for Michigan State. He didn’t play all 12 because he told his coaches during training camp he was going home, and missed the first game of the season.
After the season he went back to Riverview, about 15 minutes outside Tampa. Got a job at the Hampton Inn. Helped care for his mother and sister.
His father was gone. His mother was hurt. He missed his sister.
“I’m the only man of the house,” he said. “I dropped out, went home. I didn’t know what the future was holding but I always had faith.”
Then he got a call from Iowa State, which had recruited him while he played for Riverview High School. He had his second chance. But after one season there, in 2006, McKenzie returned to Riverview. More problems at home beckoned.
Iowa State coach Dan McCarney was fired. McKenzie was looking for another school, so he ended at South Florida in Tampa, close to home, to his mother, to his sister. One of the top defensive players in the country was a walk-on now. Was filling out financial aid forms. After McCarney joined South Florida’s coaching staff, McKenzie stayed two years and was picked by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
He’d made it. Then he got hurt.
Ty and Amy McKenzie, high school sweethearts, have five children: Ty, the oldest, is 12; Taylor is 10; Keegan is 8; Tatum is 2 and Tate is nine months old.
“That’s nonstop,” McKenzie said. “It’s my day-to-day.”
The two are determined to give their children a better life, just like his mother had tried to with him. The same mother who didn’t want her son playing when he was 8 years old because she was afraid he’d get hurt.
Ty McKenzie, the NFL player, coach, college football star, was a water boy for the local football league that year. Every game. Every practice. The next year he played — and got hurt.
The next year his father died, the two robbed of the precious moments Ty McKenzie now shares with his children, the latest a trip to South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the 2023 Little League World Series.
“So I started playing and I never stopped,” he said. “I always imagined what it would be like if my dad ever saw me play football. He never saw me play … that was always extra motivation. I want to play for my dad. I want to make him proud. I want to make something out of my last name.”
Emotion in motion
The “yes, sirs” and “thank yous” come naturally for 12-year-old Ty McKenzie, even when his teammates surround him and playfully tease him while he’s being interviewed inside an indoor practice facility in Pennsylvania.
They’re as natural as the big plays he makes on the field, as the emotion he shows off it.
The younger McKenzie confesses to having Googled his father, whose playing days ended in 2012, when he was just a year old.
“At school,” he said. “I saw pictures. He coached the Titans and it was him in a Titans polo.”
He also remembers Dad introducing him to Tyreek Hill and Dan Marino at 347 Don Shula Drive in Miami Gardens, Florida, where the Dolphins play.
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But he’s most grateful for all the extra time he’s been able to spend with his father this summer.
“It’s been really different,” he said. “We went all sorts of places.”
South Williamsport being the latest. To watch his son who makes straight A’s most of the time and is upset with himself when he scores a “B.”
“LET’S GO!” his father’s text to a reporter Wednesday night read. “Making the drive tomorrow.”
Pick me up
Ty McKenzie never started an NFL game. He made 17 tackles in 19 games over two seasons — one with his hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers and one with the Minnesota Vikings.
But he made it.
He made it through his father’s death. Through his mother’s accident. Through his sister’s troubles.
That persistence is evident in younger Ty.
His father recalled a time when his son was around 4 years old, playing in a baseball game. He was sick that day. He hit his first home run that day.
“He goes up to bat, hits the ball,” McKenzie said. “On his way to first he throws up. He doesn’t stop. He throws up and keeps running.”
The ball rolled in the outfield. McKenzie rounds first, throws up.
“Rounds second. Throws up,” he continued. “It’s a trail. I was grinning in the dugout; gonna go grab him. I stopped. I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s going to keep going.’ And he keeps going.”
When he reached home plate he fell to the ground, exhausted.
His father was there to pick him up.
Seven years later, in 2022, while playing for Nolensville Little League, young Ty repeated the scene during a game.
Ty McKenzie “doesn’t know beans about baseball.”
The words of Nolensville manager Randy Huth. About the man who coached with the Dolphins, Lions, Rams and Titans. The man who played in the NFL.
“But he knows about a team,” Huth said. “He knows about teamwork. He knows about growth, and being an athlete. He knows about mentality. That stuff he can speak to better than anybody.
“Who’s done what he’s done? Not anybody I know.”
“He knows the game,” he said. “He’s not teaching ground balls, pop flies and running drills. From a mental standpoint, he knows it. He’s very good.
“He’s getting to be a fan. He’s never gotten to do that because he’s a coach, and that’s cool. That’s a fun thing to see.”
Huth, whose father died in 2018, sort of understands the elder McKenzie, whose father died when he was much younger.
“You never meet another man who wants to see you become better than them more than your father,” McKenzie said.
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